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Find your enemy

Find your enemy

Author: Ashis Chakrabarti
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: May 9, 2002

While the pogrom in Gujarat continues to worry people in India and abroad, certain sinister developments in Bangladesh have made policymakers and analysts wonder if this young nation of 130 million, the third most populous in the Muslim world, is also losing its way into a fundamentalist quagmire. If a collapsing economy, political uncertainty and a general state of lawlessness prepare the breeding ground for religious fanatics and their political sympathizers, the situation in Bangladesh gives enough cause for concern.

The attacks on the minority Hindu community in the wake of last October's general election were initially thought to have been more political than communal. Since the overwhelming majority of Hindus in Bangladesh traditionally support the Awami League, it was clear that the attacks on the Hindus, mostly by supporters of the victorious Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, were cases of political vendetta. But subsequent events suggest a more pronounced fundamentalist pattern that seems to be targetting leaders of minority groups as well as secular Muslims. Increasingly, the fundamentalist strategy of striking at the country's secular roots is being exposed.

Terror struck the Hindu community and moderate Muslims when four assassins, believed to have close links with the Jamaat, gunned down Gopal Krishna Muhuri, a leading humanist and principal of a college in Chittagong district, last November. Attacks on the Hindu community followed soon after in different parts of the country, forcing hundreds of the victims to flee to West Bengal and Tripura.

There was another shock wave for the minority community last month when two minority religious heads were murdered in quick succession. On April 25, a Buddhist monk was killed inside his temple by criminals allegedly patronized by a leading light of the BNP's Chittagong unit. A few days later, a monk of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, who was very popular among both Buddhists and Hindus in the area, was killed at Khagrachari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts - also inside his temple.

It was the Awami League which had been crying foul so far over the atrocities on the minorities. There were also voices of protest from the intelligentsia and sections of secular Muslims. But the ruling coalition dismissed the protests as part of the political campaign of the League, which has been boycotting the country's parliament , charging the ruling coalition with rigging the October polls.

But the government of Begum Khaleda Zia is now getting more jittery. The reason is that in the past two months, Zia has faced an avalanche of criticism from international watchdog bodies, the media and most importantly, the country's donors, who drive the country's economy. In March, at their annual meeting in Paris, donors decided to link the future flow of development aid to an improvement in the law and order situation. Before the last general election, the Awami League lost much of its urban support because of the lawlessness that gripped most parts of the country.

To add insult to the donors-inflicted injury, Denmark recently decided to withhold a $ 45 million aid for Bangladesh's shipping industry, publicly accusing one prominent minister of corruption. A congressional caucus on human rights in the United States of America took the Zia government to task on the issue of the minorities barely two weeks after the visiting delegations from the Amnesty International and a Canadian human rights body did the same.

Around the same time, three articles in respected international media - the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Asian Wall Street Journal and The Friday Times of Pakistan - rang alarm bells over the rising fundamentalist threats in Bangladesh. Calling Bangladesh a "Cocoon of Terror" in a cover story in the Review last month, Bertil Lintner, one of the best known authorities on Myanmar, complained that "the government (of Zia) seems powerless and unwilling to stem the tide, which includes growing attacks on moderate Muslims and the dwindling Hindu population". He warned the international community of the "deeper long-term dangers" posed by Islamic terrorist organizations, particularly the Chittagong-based, al Qaida-trained Harkat-ul al Islami, and their overground supporters making headway in Bangladesh under the new dispensation. The article in The Friday Times contained serious allegations of Pakistani attempts to influence the October polls in favour of the BNP by bribing seniormost officers of the Bangladesh army.

The shaken Zia government attributed it all to an international conspiracy to malign the image of the country. It reacted the way all nervous, guilt-ridden governments do in similar situations. It banned the Review issue in question, but not the one of The Friday Times, possibly because the Pakistani paper does not have the former's international reputation and reach. But the angry zealots were not satisfied with just that; they bombarded Lintner with hate and threat mails.

At home, the government now prepares to do to errant native hacks what it could not do to the foreigner Lintner. A BNP member of parliament has drafted a bill that will restrict press freedom in the country as never before. Sent to parliament's standing committee for scrutiny, the special privileges and powers bill, 2002, provides for punishment of journalists and watchdog bodies if they publish official documents or even "insult" a parliament member. Without an opposition to fight back, the passage of the bill is as certain as its abuse by members of the ruling coalition. Vincent Brossel, chief of Reporters Sans Frontiers, the Paris-based press freedom watchdog body, was in Dhaka recently and warned that the proposed legislation would signal the end of the free press in the country.

It is not difficult to see why the government wants to muzzle the press. Dhaka can pride itself on a recent burst of vibrant, critical and independent Bengali and English newspapers as well as television channels. In fact, some of these newspapers did a far better job than Indian newspapers of reporting the atrocities on Hindus and the government's drift . Some journalists had to pay with their lives or near-fatal attacks on them. Barring the rabidly partisan papers loyal to the BNP, League or the Jamaat, the newspaper fraternity in Dhaka and other towns has shown remarkable professional courage and integrity in troubled times.

The press in Bangladesh, along with the country's secular majority and the huge network of nongovernmental organizations, offers hope that the country's secular roots will hold out in the face of mounting fundamentalist offensives. For some years now, the Jamaat has been openly supporting the fundamentalist diatribes against women's massive participation in NGO work. Its founder, Golam Azzam, who sided with Pakistan during the country's liberation war against Pakistan, accuses foreign donors of upsetting the country's "Islamic social base" by providing loans to women-run NGOs.

Between the Grameen Bank, which created history by involving rural women in self-employment projects with a micro-credit movement, the Bangladesh rural advancement committee, that runs over 30,000 schools and countless other NGOs, a powerful social engineering has been achieved against the heavy odds of poverty, political chaos and economic mismanagement.

The fundamentalists are hard at work trying to change all this - in the religious schools, hospitals and other institutions they run. For the mainstream Bangladeshi society, they are still pariahs. But this lunatic fringe has thrown up a challenge which the Bangladeshis themselves, not the donors or overseas watchdogs, will have to meet.

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